Fostering Creative Teamwork

GONG, Yaping | KIM, Tae-Yeol | LEE, Deog-Ro

Managers that want creative ideas and solutions from their teams should consider how their trust relationships with their staff may help or hinder employees in taking risks and suggesting new ways of doing things.

That was a key recommendation in a study by Yaping Gong, Tae-Yeol Kim, Deog-Ro Lee and Jing Zhu on the conditions and factors that encourage creativity in teams, as opposed to individuals.

The authors applied three kinds of goal orientation that were previously observed to affect creativity in individuals – learning (competence development), performance approach (gaining favourable evaluations), and performance avoidance (avoiding mistakes and negative evaluations) – to 485 members and their leaders from 100 research and development teams in 19 Korean companies.

They used the findings to explore how team and individual creativity interacted, and how the trust relationship with the team leader affected the outcome.

“Team creativity refers to the generation of novel and useful ideas by a team of employees working together. We wanted to know, does the team goal orientation relate to team creativity and if so, how?” they said.

To answer this, they focused in particular on how well teams communicated and exchanged information – which fosters creativity – because this can be influenced by shared goals. The trust relationship between manager and team comes into the picture because it can moderate the relationship between team goals and information exchange.

“Because the team leader often has the most power and is ultimately responsible for evaluating its members, a trust relationship with the team leader constitutes the critical relational context for the exchange of ideas and creative behaviours,” the authors said.

Teasing apart the different goal orientations and other factors, the study found, first, that a team learning goal had an indirect relationship with both team and individual creativity because it encouraged teams to seek out information and learn from each other.

A team performance approach goal also had a positive influence because members were motivated to work together and share information in order to gain a favourable external evaluation.

However, a team performance avoidance goal was a damper on creativity because it led to a tendency to avoid challenges and uncertainties that increased the risk of error.

On trust, team members that trusted their leader more were more willing to share and exchange information (thus leading to greater creativity). If trust was weak, they felt more vulnerable and less comfortable doing so.

However, these effects were not uniform for all goals. Trust strengthened the positive effect of the team learning goal. However, it weakened the positive effect of the team performance goal due to three factors.

“First, a strong trust relationship reduces the perceived vulnerability of team members in the event that they do not perform. Second, the team performance approach goal is characterised by an externally oriented motivation. Third, a trust relationship reduces the levels of monitoring. It may lead to a lower level of goal-striving activities, such as information exchange,” they said.

The study also showed that individual creativity was positively related to team creativity above and beyond information exchange because it contributed to a supportive climate for creativity.

The findings had three take-aways for managers. First, they may find it useful to foster team learning goals through leadership, assigned objectives and recognition, for example by modelling and rewarding learning, and also by nurturing the trust relationship with team leaders.

Second, managers could encourage the team performance approach goal and take measures to avoid the development of a team performance avoidance goal.

And third, managers could look to a team context to enhance individual creativity, in particular by supporting team learning through institutionalised platforms or channels for exchanging ideas and perspectives.

“To sum up, creativity is a multilevel phenomenon and accordingly it is desirable to adopt a systematic, multilevel approach to enhancing it,” the authors said.

GONG, Yaping

Fung Term Professor of Management, Head, Chair Professor